Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Untapped Potential: From Whom Life Has Taken a Great Deal, the Women at Bedford Hills Are Getting Much in Return-In the Form of Education

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Untapped Potential: From Whom Life Has Taken a Great Deal, the Women at Bedford Hills Are Getting Much in Return-In the Form of Education

Article excerpt

For Aileen Baumgartner, academic director of the college program at Bedford Hills, the click came when she learned one of her students was enjoying The Faerie Queene so much she was translating each canto into rap and performing each day's lesson back on the unit every night.

"It was just so mythological to me," Baumgartner says, like something out of an old tale. "And everyone on the unit was captivated--the women, even the guards, just wanted more and more. And I was ... seduced. It wasn't just this group of motivated women who were learning The Faerie Queene--it was everyone."

For Dr. Jane Maher, director of the special programs that prepare the women at Bedford Hills for college-level coursework, the click came when she started getting the notes. Like the one here, each was a cry for help.

"I want to be in college. I am slow. Please help me. My way out of this life is an education. I have to start over when I get out. Be where nobody knows me. I will have to read job ads, find an apartment, find my children." We've all experienced it. It's that almost imperceptible sense we get when things suddenly begin to fall into place, when we suddenly realize that we've found the place where we belong.

Tracey Bowe, age 37, has been in Bedford Hills since 1993--she's not scheduled for her "first board," that is to say her first parole board hearing until 2011--but she remembers precisely when she felt the click.

"It was in the spring of 2004 when I realized all l needed was five more classes to graduate," she says. Though she'd been incredibly tentative about going to school, dithering for years before she started in 1999 and then daring only to take one class per semester because, "I was apprehensive--I didn't want to spread myself too thin," her attitude changed 180 degrees when she got close enough to taste the associate's degree.

"I got really excited. I went from taking one class a semester to two and going to summer school because I want to graduate in May," Bowe says. And when she does, she may find herself at or near the top of her class--Bowe has a 3.75 GPA, earned taking tough classes like "Quantitative Reasoning," "Great Social Thinkers" and "Contemporary America."

Sharonica Currie knows whereof Bowe speaks. Currie is a relative short-timer--age 30, in for four-and-a-half years and going home in March--but she says she got the shock of her life when she took physics ... and aced it.

"I got 100 on my first test," she says, laughing, the surprise still visible on her face.

It's as Kecia Pittman, age 40, with the unlined face and infectious laugh of a woman 15 years younger, says, "There's untapped potential in here. There (are) Einsteins in here."

There are around 820 women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women; about 150, or around 18 percent, are either in the precollege or college programs. In addition:

* 85 percent of the women are African American;

* 75 percent are mothers; and

* 60 percent of the mothers have children under the age of seven.

While it's considered bad form to ask an inmate what her crime is, particularly at a facility like Bedford Hills where the women are serving long sentences--an average of eight and three-quarters years, says Deputy Superintendent Judith MacCalla--the stories they tell are amazingly consistent. Abuse. Neglect.

"Wrong people. Wrong choices," says Deborah Armstrong, age 51, incarcerated nine and a half years, with 12 more to go till parole.

"Drugs," adds Pittman. "I would say drugs are the No. …

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